Chartres Cathedral From The Outside

In the late afternoon our train pulled into the station in downtown Chartres. Our hotel was just a couple of blocks away. Though it was pretty basic, from the window of our room we could view what had drawn us here: Chartres Cathedral, which we would see for the first time.

Chartres Cathedral
View of Chartres Cathedral from our motel window.

One thing that absolutely made all the difference to our visit was signing up for a tour led by Malcolm Miller. Miller is English but lives in Chartres and has studied the cathedral for the last 50 years. He’s written books and travels all over the world lecturing on Chartres.

Malcolm Miller
Malcolm Miller

Approaching the cathedral, it seems to be almost completely covered with thousands of sculpted figures, creating a chaotic impression. Miller explained that the sculptures outside and the stained glass inside are not just a conglomeration of images. Rather, the cathedral can be thought of as a kind of giant picture book whose thousands of figures combine to tell bible stories along with related religious messages.

Chartres Cathedral

Most of the images mean nothing to a majority of travellers who see them today. However, they could be “read” by the mainly illiterate people of the 12th and 13th centuries who were alive when the cathedral was built.

Chartres St. Peter
See St. Peter to the right with the keys?

Partly this was because people of the time were steeped in the stories of the bible. But in addition, objects were included that to a medieval person would provide instant identification. For example, the keys held by the the third figure above identifies him as St. Peter, who guards the gates of heaven.

Isaac and Jacob, Chartres
Abraham and Isaac in the center between two other old testament figures.

Similarly, the man and boy above are Abraham and Isaac. If you are in any doubt, you can see that Isaac stands on a smaller image of a ram caught in a shrub – the ram that Abraham was able to sacrifice in place of his son Isaac.

Throne of Judgement Chartres

Here is Jesus on the Throne of Judgement, with Mary by his side. Not sure who the other figure is.

Chartres Cathedral

The damned being sent on their way. Pretty grim stuff.

Chartres steeples

Parts of the cathedral were destroyed or added on over the centuries, which is why the two steeples look so different. The first one is plain and was finished in the 12th Century. The second was built in the 16th Century and is covered in Gothic doodads.

flying buttresses chartres
Flying buttresses along the side of the cathedral

I’m not a big cathedral enthusiast, or even a religious person. But it is hard not to feel moved by this edifice and all the skill and devotion that was poured into it. It stands as a monument to another world, and another way of seeing the world.

Coming soon: Chartres from the inside.

14 Comments on “Chartres Cathedral From The Outside

  1. I love cathedrals, used to leave near the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in NYC. Can’t wait to see the inside of Chartres. Thank you for sharing, I’m enjoying your trip to France!

    • Thanks. I grew up in the suburbs of NYC, but don’t remember St. John the Divine very well. We have some notable cathedrals here in Chicago, including Holy Name.

  2. Like you, I’m not an enthusiast, but I often wonder at the work and effort (not to mention the money!) that was put into such buildings over decades, if not centuries. Now was it devotion, fear of damnation, a love of architecture, or maybe all three?!

    • Well, yes, I did think about the massive wealth that went into that cathedral at a time most people were living in terrible proverty. I think devotion, fear, and artistry all had a part to play. Not to mention the vainglory of kings and cardinals.

    • It was the only one in France that we made a special trip to see. We did see several in Paris, but that was just walking around the city.

  3. Enjoyable to read about Chartres again. Studied it many years ago in school but never have I seen it in real life. Your trip was obviously a time well spent.

  4. What always amazes me about cathedrals is, they took so long to build that the people who started building them weren’t around to see them finished. Like building a house you know you’ll never live in.

  5. I totally agree Jason, it’s an amazing work of art that will stand for hundreds of years….I wonder how many modern builds will do that.xxxx

  6. Raised Catholic many of these sculptures resemble the type of statues you would find in church. I studied many parts of French culture in high school French classes so this is one cathedral I would love to visit. And thanks for the hint of who to have lead the tour.

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